In an effort to provide the best possible range of automotive-related ramblings to you, dear readers, I recently decided to take a trip out to New York City’s easternmost borough: Queens. I don’t spend enough time here. Queens is quieter and more accessible than the Bronx, it isn’t as high strung as Manhattan, and it doesn’t make me feel bad about myself for not knowing what “normcore” is like Brooklyn does. Plus, Spiderman lives here. And so does today’s car. This is a 1969 AMC Rebel SST Sedan.
From the looks of things, this Rebel appears to have lived in this particular corner of Jackson Heights for quite some time, even if those magazines in the back window point to a decidedly more worldly past. But before we get to the car, let’s talk about the company that built it: AMC, also known as American Motors. I don’t want to get too far into the weeds of American car brands and their owners in the first half of the twentieth century, because that can get pretty confusing. Suffice to say, much like General Motors, Ford, and Chrysler, AMC grew out of an amalgamation of smaller car brands. They started with just three: Hudson, Nash, and Rambler (the latter of which started out making bicycles, of all things). Before you knew it, it was the 1950s and Mitt Romney’s dad was in charge. In 1957, AMC crammed their new 327 cubic inch V8 into their midsize offering, the Rebel. Thus began a time-honored tradition of making small, unassuming cars capable of frankly offensive speeds by stuffing a huge engine into them. And the gods of the car world looked upon this day, and saw that it was good. For it was on this day that the muscle car was born.
Sort of. You see, some people think the muscle car originated with the Pontiac GTO. But the basic recipe for the muscle car was first seen in the ’57 Rebel: big engine, small(ish) car, rear-wheel-drive, and a relatively reasonable price. There was only one problem: AMC forgot about it. See, everyone remembers the GTO as the first muscle car because it was loud and fast and was only available as a coupe because people who are badass don’t need easy access to the backseat, I guess. Plus, Pontiac stuck with the concept. The first GTO was good, the second one improved upon the first, and so on. We got the hilariously orange “The Judge” model, and even the oft-forgotten 2004 reboot of the GTO enjoys a cult following. The Rebel? Not so much. AMC invented the genre, then didn’t think about it again until everyone else had perfected their own cars. By the mid-sixties, GM had the GTO and the Chevelle, Ford had the Mustang and the Cougar, and Chrysler had the Challenger, the Charger, and the Barracuda.
In 1967, someone tipped AMC off to this incredibly relevant and profitable sector of the market that they created. Quickly, they set about completely redesigning the Rebel, and this is what they came up with. The “SST” model was supposedly the nicest (and the fastest) model that you could buy, though it’s worth mentioning that “SST” was really just a bit of badge snobbery, as many of the things that you got on an SST could be optioned on a lesser model. Nonetheless, if Chevy was going to have the “SS,” moniker, and if fast Dodges went by “R/T,” then by god if AMC wasn’t going to try and sell you an SST. At first, you could only have an SST if you bought a coupe or convertible, but by 1969, in a last ditch attempt to sell something that people actually wanted, you could have a Rebel SST sedan or a wagon as well. You could have a 343 cubic inch V8 in your Rebel, which gave you a rear-wheel-drive, 280 horsepower muscle car that could compete (albeit belatedly) with the best of them. This particular car has the slightly smaller 290 cubic inch V8, which developed 220 horsepower. Transmission choices included everything from a three or four speed automatic, to a three or four speed manual, to a transmission with something called “Shift Command,” which, incidentally, is the title of the latest entry in my ongoing transmission-based sci-fi web series. It’ll be available exclusively on Hyper-Scan.
The Rebel SST was not a bad car by any means, but just as “location, location, location” seems to be the rule of thumb for the housing market, “timing, timing, timing” is the age-old rule for the automotive industry. The Rebel was late to its own party, and not fashionably late either. Embarrassingly, rudely late. AMC’s decline through the seventies and eighties isn’t a pretty one, and the reason for the company’s ultimate demise is much bigger than the talented, if forgettable Rebel. But it is a good allegory for where the car and the company stand in terms of automotive fundamentalism. If GM, Ford, and Chrysler are John, Paul, and George, AMC is unquestionably Ringo. If it were still alive today, it’d be doing ads for Sketchers and misunderstanding how the mannequin challenge works.
- Even if it wasn’t so memorable on this side of the pond, the Rebel did enjoy a rather pleasant life abroad. Australian Rebels were assembled from kits and sourced some Toyota parts. Certain countries in Europe sold the “Renault Rambler,” which was really just a lightly disguised AMC Rebel built in Belgium. And Mexican Rebels were assembled using mostly locally sourced parts and were actually a little more luxurious than their American counterparts.
- The marketing department for the Rebel came up with what USA Today called “the funniest ad of all time.” Personally, I prefer the one with the cowboys.
- Given the civil rights movement of the 1960s, AMC decided that the name “Rebel” too closely associated the company with a feeling of rebellion, and in 1971 changed the name to Matador.